In the picture, a young man stands on top of a grand piano with ripped jeans, frowning at the ceiling. At first glance, this is a rebellious teenager whose musical tastes most likely lie in punk, rock or techno.
But don’t be fooled by appearances. This is Haiou Zhang, one of the most talented classical pianists today whose brilliant performances have evoked poetry and standing ovations from veteran concertgoers.
This and other pictures are displayed on Zhang’s website. He hopes more young people will become interested in classical music, an important issue the classical music community is facing in the 21st century.
At just 25, Zhang has performed with some of the world’s most celebrated orchestras and sold more than 30,000 CDs in his native China. He is currently performing in a six-city concert tour with the famed Slovak Sinfonietta in its Canadian debut.
Many young people would prefer to go to discos and drink rather than spend that money on a concert, explains Zhang. But that doesn’t mean young people don’t like classical music.
“I went to some high schools and some colleges. I went there to talk to them and introduce them to some really good music and they were totally interested. They were sitting there listening to Claude Debussy and French impressionists so quietly. I didn’t expect that at all,” he said, adding that young people need to be led to good music.
Zhang calls classical music “pure gold.”
“Even I as a professional musician, every day when I get up and switch on the iPod to listen to music, it makes me feel really good, and feel quite a lot of power to begin my day,” he said.
While some may think that classical music is outdated, Zhang points out that the perception a few hundred years ago was very different.
“At that time, this was pop music, it was rock music. Mozart was the Michael Jackson of his time,” he said.
What modern people consider classical music now may have been revolutionary back then. Zhang referred to the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, opus 111, calling the rhythm similar to Boogie-woogie, a musical style popular in the 1930s and 40s.
“When audiences at that time (200 years ago) heard this kind of Boogie-woogie rhythm, they were totally shocked, they were blown away, and this is the pop music at that time, and this music led us to the future,” he said.
Unlike most other pianists, Zhang took up the instrument relatively late—he was 9 years old, when the average age is to begin 4 or 5. It was fashionable in China at that time to take piano lessons, but soon the young boy showed talent beyond his years. A year later, he was one of only 4 out of more than 100 students to be accepted to the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing.
It was not love at first sight. The long hours were gruelling, and it wasn’t until his late teens that Zhang started to love the piano. “It was a process,” he said, adding that years of practice have forged a strong bond with the instrument.
“There’s always something indescribable between the piano and me. It has grown into my blood, my body, and I feel it is part of me. Sometimes when I feel a little tired, as soon as I touch the keyboard, I feel immediately much better.”
On his European tours, audiences often wonder how he can relate so well to Western music. His answer is simple. “I think the classical music, Bach, Beethoven or Mozart, is not only music related to an individual nation, it’s universal, it’s something global and universal. It shows power and understanding of the highest level of humanity.”
Zhang said he found a connection between the music of Chopin, one of his favourite composers, and ancient Chinese poems. “There are indescribably beautiful scenes from these old Chinese poems, the mountains, the lake, everything.” When he closed his eyes and tried to imagine what Chopin felt when he composed his Nocturnes, he saw a connection between the two.
In fact, he found that the more he understood his own country’s history, the more he could understand that of others.
This is Haiou Zhang’s third return to Canada, having first performed to acclaim with Kerry Stratton and the Toronto Philharmonia in 2007. On Monday night, he performed Beethoven’s piano concerto along with the Slovak Sinfonietta in a concert that also featured American award-winning pianist Elaine Kwon. Kwon performed Anton Rubinstein’s piano concerto no.4. The artists were all greeted with standing ovations.
“Everywhere is passion and power. That’s why I’m loving it,” said Zhang of Beethoven's Emperor concerto. He also particularly valued the poetic quality of the piece, especially the 2nd movement.
“You can easily find [poetry] in the slow movement. Fast passages, you can hardly find it, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. You just have to discover everything yourself.”
He said he particularly appreciated the opportunity to play with the Slovak Sinfonietta, many of whose 38 members are award-winning artists.
“They are very good musicians, so I feel comfortable to perform with them. A good orchestra makes you feel free,” he said, explaining that the feeling comes from playing well together.
Following the Canadian tour, Zhang will hold a master class, teaching and performing at New York State University. This summer, he is looking forward to another landmark in his young career—a small community near Hamburg, in Germany (where he now makes his home) will host the Haiou Zhang festival, named in his honour.
The Slovak Sinfonietta and Haiou Zhang will hold two more concerts in Canada: May 5 in Richmond Hill and May 8 in Niagara Falls.